Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

What Colm Tóibín said about genre fiction

And why are so many Irish crime writers angry about it?

A few days ago, The Observer (the Sunday stablemate of The Guardian) published an interview with Colm Tóibín. It was one of those quickie interviews that consists partly of standard questions (“Which books are on your bedside table?”) and partly of questions tailored to the interview subject’s own writing (“Is there a connection with the death of your father when you were 13?”) It was Tóibín’s response to one of the standard questions — “Which books do you feel are most overrated?” — that got some of his fellow writers’ backs up.

Questions about what is or isn’t overrated are impossible to answer, partly because we never really know how highly something is rated overall. A hit with the critics and selling respectably but languishing quarter-read on coffee tables? An overlooked sleeper success in the making? Who’s to say? So it’s not surprising that Tóibín didn’t directly answer the question. This is what he did say:

I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.

Almost immediately the cries of indignation arose from the ranks of genre authors, and particularly those who write crime fiction, which has been doing very well in the Irish market in recent years, with the success of authors like Tana French, Liz Nugent, Dervla McTiernan, Alan Glynn, Jane Casey and many others. The Irish Times published the considered responses of seven writers of crime fiction, sprinkled with the shorter comments of some other genre writers, and Stephen Fry.

Jane Casey was disappointed:

The world of crime writing is so supportive and warm that it’s quite a shock to read negative generalisations about the genre … I’d venture to suggest Mr Tóibín has been reading the wrong thrillers rather than agree that thrillers have nothing to offer him.

while Declan Burke (who has edited an anthology of short crime fiction by Irish writers in Trouble is Our Business ) comments:

*Sighs* Are we still here? Okay, we’ll try again for the more obtuse down the back … A particular style of prose, or the absence of same, is not specific to any genre, including the literary genre. Every writer tells their story in the way that best suits the needs of the story.

Well, quite. Are we still here? And haven’t we had this conversation before, repeatedly and at wearying length? So, the thing that puzzles me is why all of these writers, many of them very sharp readers and established critics, would interpret Tóibín’s remarks as indicating a desire to reopen the long settled and frankly uninteresting pseudo-debate as to whether genre fiction has any value or significance and whether it’s worth our, or anybody’s, while. Such a question is only ever going to have one answer and Tóibín is surely intelligent enough to know what that answer is going to be. And I’ve no doubt that he has more interesting things to do with his time than to reopen a futile and tedious argument.

So, why would anybody, least of all the sharp readers and critical thinkers I’ve mentioned, interpret his comments as an attack on genre fiction as a category? Let’s look again at what he said.

First of all, the most obvious thing about Tóibín, as everyone involved in the discussion is aware, is that he’s a writer. So, when a writer says “I can’t do genre fiction”, what’s your first thought? He can’t read genre fiction? Or he can’t write it? If it weren’t for the context — i.e. that he’s been asked what books he feels are overrated — surely the first interpretation wouldn’t even cross our minds. And when he goes on to say “I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing”, how can that fail to put the question beyond any doubt?

Are we really going to read this as a generalized, magisterial judgment on the prose style of everything from Graham Greene’s “entertainments” to Scott Turow’s legal thrillers, by way of Peter Abrahams and Caroline Kepnes? Or do we think it more likely that Tóibín is talking about his own prose, at those times when he has attempted to write genre fiction? To me, the first possibility seems so implausible that some explanation is required of the fact that a group of crime writers seem unanimously to have settled on it. One possible explanation, which I hope isn’t the correct one, is that they’re reacting defensively, out of a lack of confidence in the value of their own work, to an entirely imagined attack. Whatever the reason, there really was no need to revisit this vexed — not to say exhausted — question. Can we let it drop now?